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Dave Wood's Book Report, Nov. 21, 2007

Here are three non-fiction works by three accomplished fiction writers.

"A true novelist can no more cease to receive impressions than a fish in mid-ocean can cease to let the water rush through its gills." That's what the great British author Virginia Woolf said, among many other things.

In "The Virginia Woolf Writers' Workshop" (Bantam, $24) Danell Jones has sifted through Woolf's journals, letters, to come up with a short course in writing. Seven chapters contain Woolf's take on Practicing, Working, Creating, Walking, Reading, Publishing and Doubting.

Jones little book is a tour de force and probably worth at least as much as two years pursuing a master's of fine arts degree.

Edwidge Danticat broke onto the U.S. literary scene 10 years ago, with short stories and novels like "The Dew Breaker."

A native of Haiti with an exotic name catapulted her to instant success. Now she's has tried her hand at non-fiction with "Brother, I'm Dying" (Knopf, $23.95). It begins modestly enough when her parents leave Haiti to find a better life in the U.S.

Edwidge is left behind, cared for by her charismatic preacher uncle, Joseph. He's good to her and the relationship is idyllic if anything in Haiti can be.

At 12, she leaves to join her parents, fame follows, but worries persist about what's going on in the homeland. So Joseph, 80, comes to the U.S. He is detained at U.S. Customs, held by the Department of Homeland Security, imprisoned. He dies within days.

And you think it's a pain to have to remove your shoes at the airport.

Mary Gordon has published six novels to wide acclaim, including "Final Payments," which became a bestseller. Now she turns to non-fiction in a story about Anna Gagliano, who died at age 94, five years ago.

"Circling My Mother" (Pantheon, $24) paints a complex picture of the relationship between daughter and mother, who ravaged by both polio and alcoholism managed to keep her family together and enjoy life.

Minnesota author Lawrence Sutin recalls a painful eighth-grade adolescence in "After the Bell," edited by Maggie Anderson and David Hassler (University of Iowa Press, $17.50), a collection of writerly stories about authors' school experiences.

Here's Sutton's story, which will probably ring a bell with memories of school:

"As for my teachers at school, I had drawn spectacularly wretched bunch. My English teacher spent two months on 'The Great Stone Face,' by Nathaniel Hawthorne. My economics teacher had a smoking habit so intense that he would sit in a glazed trance by the end of the period, waiting like a Pavlovian dog for the bell that would free him to run to the janitorial closet where he kept his smoke.

"But my science teacher was of an altogether different feather. He understood nascent teens with the same precision and indifference as he understood taxonomy.

"He tossed his scientific knowledge at us with a contempt to which he was entitled. He always wore white gloves and the rumor had passed from year to year that the middle glove finger on his right hand was a fake to mask its loss in a forbidden experiment gone very wrong in is college days.

"To check that out I constantly watched his right hand. But there was never a definitive movement by which I could tell.

"As he called on us by pointing (with his index finger) rather than by name, it was a considerable shock to hear him say at the end of the hour that Larry Sutin should stay after class.

"My fellow students smirked. I walked up to his desk. He raised his right hand in a fist. 'This is the only thing that interests you, yes?'

"I said nothing as he slowly uplifted the middle finger. 'See? Now shake.' He grabbed my right hand with his and squeezed until my eyes began to water. 'But how can you be sure,' he continued, 'it's not a padded metal spring in there? Now there's a question. Can you think of an experiment to answer it?' He let go of me, slapped his hand flat on the desk next to a scalpel of the type we used on frogs. 'If you cut through the glove and blood spurted out you'd know, wouldn't you?'

"I closed my eyes to make it all go away. He pressed the scalpel handle into my hand. 'Do it. Now!'

"I opened my eyes. With his left hand he guided my right to the glove finger. I dropped the scalpel. He took it and sliced. The blood and I both ran."

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.